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Back to the Pleistocene

10 Nov 2021 | News Roundup

It isn’t clear whether it makes it better or worse to hear from The Open University that woolly mammoths actually lasted into the historical era, finally vanishing only around 4,000 years ago, after the invention of both “pen” and “sword”, that is, writing and practical metallurgy. If they had gone down with the end of the last glaciation 12,000 years ago, as part of the mass extinction of large mammals, it would seem like a remote and inevitable tragedy, sort of like Dinosaurs 2.0. Now it sounds as though they were so close to “making it”, defined rather self-centredly as meaning surviving into our day, that they reached the pyramids, chronologically if not geographically. But what took them down? Why, climate change of course. Meaning we’re back to the zealot with a hammer problem here.

It’s like the “climate scientist” who reports really having this exchange with her kid: “’Where are the dinosaurs now?’ ‘Well, you know, they died out’. ‘Why did they die out?’ ‘Well, climate change?’” Yeah, sure whatever. Climate change as in a giant asteroid that whacked the Earth so hard it blotted out the sun for years. It came from outer space. But let’s call it climate change anyway because everything bad is climate change. If the kid has any sense he’ll blame climate change next time he brings home an F on his report card.

The Open University piece offers the usual. “Geneticists analysed ancient environmental DNA and proved it was because when the ice sheets melted, it became far too wet for the giant animals to survive because their food source – vegetation – was practically wiped out.” Uh, didn’t the ice sheets mostly melt 12,000 years ago? And why are there no mammoths hanging on in the places they didn’t melt? Surely not because noble humans killed everything they could reach with a pointed stick?

No, no. It was climate change and especially that favourite bugbear, rapid climate change. According to lead author Eske Willerslev of Cambridge University, “Scientists have argued for 100 years about why mammoths went extinct. Humans have been blamed because the animals had survived for millions of years without climate change killing them off before, but when they lived alongside humans they didn’t last long, and we were accused of hunting them to death. We have finally been able to prove that it was not just the climate changing that was the problem, but the speed of it that was the final nail in the coffin – they were not able to adapt quickly enough when the landscape dramatically transformed, and their food became scarce.”

Forgive our fish-eye here. But it seems that woolly mammoths first appeared around 700,000 years ago, which is surprisingly recent since the Pleistocene ice age began around 2.5 million years back. Nevertheless it means they went through two previous interglacials. One being the Eemian (also, Wikipedia says, “known as the Ipswichian in the UK, the Mikulin interglacial in Russia, the Valdivia interglacial in Chile and the Riss-Würm interglacial in the Alps” but Eemian is a cooler name than any of those, let alone NOAA’s ghastly “Penultimate Interglacial Period”) which lasted from roughly 130 to 115 kya. And the other, prior “Hoxnian” interglacial was from roughly 424 to 374 kya so the mammoths browsed their way through it too.

Another curiosity, as Wikipedia unguardedly concedes, is that “The prevailing Eemian climate was, on average, around 1 to 2 degrees Celsius (1.8 to 3.6 Fahrenheit) warmer than that of the Holocene.” To hear modern alarmists tell it, such degrees would have made it a hellscape where everything cute died including woolly mammoths. Though in fact it means there’s nothing unusual about current temperatures. Nor is there much else odd about the Holocene in other respects (unless you count humans inventing agriculture and iPads), including its beginning suddenly with a dramatic temperature rise that, um, didn’t kill the mammoths.

As the Open University story says, “The woolly mammoth and its ancestors lived on earth for five million years and the huge beasts evolved and weathered several Ice Ages. During this period, herds of mammoths, reindeer and woolly rhinoceroses thrived in the cold and snowy conditions.” Actually that passage is a bit hard to take seriously because obviously its ancestors lived on Earth since the first appearance of life. As for its immediate ancestors, the “Elephantimorpha” that include mammoths’ distant cousins the mastodons, they apparently diverged from manatees and dugongs some 55 mya. Which was a period of exceptional warmth, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, during which contrary to alarmist orthodoxy all sorts of new species instead of withering and dying burst forth. But let us not get distracted. The point is climate change better look out now GHGs we’re all doooomed!

The article quoted Willerslev that, “This is a stark lesson from history and shows how unpredictable climate change is – once something is lost, there is no going back.... The change happened so quickly that they could not adapt and evolve to survive. It shows nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the impact of dramatic changes in the weather. The early humans would have seen the world change beyond all recognition – that could easily happen again, and we cannot take for granted that we will even be around to witness it. The only thing we can predict with any certainty is that the change will be massive.”

Frankly it seems mammoths were actually in a world of trouble by 2,000 BC, restricted to a handful of spots including St. Paul Island and their last stand, Wrangel Island, with populations too small to be robust. And we notice that this sudden change that wiped out the mammoths after an 8,000-year delay didn’t seem to hurt the bemused humans, who went on to shuck off the heavy mammoth skins and start creating farming, pottery, writing, the pyramids and, eventually, processed cheese.

The only rational conclusion to be drawn from this regrettable story other than dang it, they were so close, is that climate changes constantly, often suddenly, due to natural causes, and that adaptability is the key. Whereas instead we’re relentlessly told that climate is naturally stable, alters only slowly, and preventing change is the key. As a Reuters story on mammoths last year ended predictably, quoting lead author Vincent Lynch of the State University of New York at Buffalo, “Mammoths were literally huge and globally distributed, and this massive range was reduced to a tiny island in the Arctic Ocean before their extinction. It should be a warning about the consequences of climate change.”

Bang bang bang.

3 comments on “Back to the Pleistocene”

  1. You mean SUVs didn’t kill off the woolly mammoth?

    How could the climate change if there wasn’t any anthropogenic CO2 to change it? Does our Prime Minister know this?

  2. I was under the impression that all the woolly mammoths that had been found were discovered frozen in the Siberian permafrost. In that case the environment that they were supposed to flourish in seems to have killed them, given that some of them have been found intact, in apparent good health and without any obvious injuries. So well preserved in fact, that their stomachs contained their final meal. One source said that one of these healthy specimens had undigested vegetation in its digestive system. If true then that particular mammoth froze to death rather quickly. Not being an archaeological biologist, I cannot possible comment. Climate eh, so unpredictable, so chaotic, but of course, politically controllable.

  3. So many theories, so little time.....oh, wait. One theory, so little time. Goodness, how lucky we are that science nowadays has become so simple.

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